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Keystone: Exporting Canadian Oil Across America's Backyard

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Given the relentless "all of the above" energy strategy pursued by the Obama Administration, the release this past Friday of a positive environmental impact report for the proposed Keystone oil pipeline was no big surprise. The U.S. State Department essentially declared that since the extra-dirty tar sands oil designated for the pipeline was going to be shipped and burned one way or another, building the pipeline down from Canada to Gulf coast refineries would not have that much impact on the environment, despite warnings from climate scientists that burning all the tar sands oil would be "game over" in the fight to stop climate change. This conclusion by the State Department was a laughable bit of self-fulfilling logic. But perhaps the biggest surprise in the report was the tacit admission that the tar sands oil isn't going to be burned in the U.S. at all. Instead, it is destined for refining and export overseas.

The State Department report details how Gulf Coast oil refineries will use the tar sands crude oil delivered by Keystone to replace supplies from Venezuela and Mexico, refine the crude into high-end products like gasoline, and then export the refined fuel overseas. Meanwhile, as if to add insult to injury, fuel prices paid by U.S. consumers in the Midwest are expected to jump as the pipeline will siphon off crude oil supplies that are currently landlocked in the U.S. The U.S. State Department did not, of course, highlight these findings at the top of its report but instead buried them down in the "market analysis" section, where it left a clear trail of breadcrumbs.

Interestingly, the State Department went way out of its way to argue that the pipeline won't be used to export unprocessed crude oil. (Though the industry clearly expects otherwise: see here.) Yet, at the same time, the State Department admits, using painstakingly disconnected phrasing, that the crude oil delivered by the pipeline will be processed by Gulf coast refineries and then exported, in a shell game whereby export refineries replace declining crude oil supplies from Venezuela and Mexico with Keystone Canadian tar sands oil.

Regarding the pipeline's impact on the export of refined crude, the State Department report says: "... future refined product export trends are also unlikely to be significantly impacted by the proposed Project."

And what exactly are those trends? The State Department reports that: "In 2005, exports began increasing... Export volumes have increased to over 3 mmbpd in the first half of 2012. This increased volume of refined products is being exported by refiners as they respond to lower domestic gasoline demand and continued higher demand and prices in overseas markets."

And why use the extra dirty crude oil to be delivered by the Keystone Pipeline? The State Department says: "Gulf Coast refiners' traditional sources of heavy crudes, particularly Mexico and Venezuela, are declining and are expected to continue to decline. This results in an outlook where the refiners have significant incentive to obtain heavy crude from the oil sands."

And there you have it, a shell game, with Keystone as the lynchpin for the whole effort. Gas prices go up for Midwesterners, big oil refineries profit from the overseas export of fuel processed from dirty tar sands oil, and the rest of us are that much further in the hole in our fight to stop climate change. The environmental impact statement appears to be a clear signal that the Obama Administration is headed down the road to approval. However, the growing backlash against the pipeline creates a headache for the president who just made a very public commitment to protect the climate. A fight is clearly in the works.

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